Published Sept. 27, 2013
When he was a toddler, Joseph Biner of Westchester was shy and withdrawn. And yet he couldn’t sit still in a chair for any length of time.
His mother, Patty Biner, began to dread the prospect of sending him off to kindergarten.
“I wanted to find a more constructive way to teach him,” she said. “I didn’t want to just throw him to the wolves.”
Kids might bully him. Counselors might label him.
“I’m sure they would want to say he has ADHD and put him on medication,” she said. “I think most ADHDs are just boys being boys.”
Patty and her husband, George, decided to home-school their child. In doing so, they joined a rapidly expanding movement.
Once primarily the domain of the Christian right or the far left, home schooling is increasingly appealing to families that don’t consider themselves deeply religious or ideological.
The practice instead appears to be entering a new phase of mainstream attention, attracting greater numbers of people who are most concerned about subjecting their kids to the pitfalls of the traditional school environment: standardized testing, peer pressure, bullying and even violence.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released its five-year report on home schooling. Among its findings: the number of home-schooled students ages 5 to 17 in the United States has jumped 17 percent since the last study in 2007 — to a record 1.77 million students. That represents about 3.4 percent of all the nation’s K-12 students.
Meanwhile, the proportion of K-12 students who are attending private schools has shrunk in a decade, from 12 percent to 10 percent.
Pam Sorooshian, who co-founded a group for home-schoolers in Long Beach called Dragon Tree, said the home-schooling option is no longer perceived as bizarre in the way it was when she was home-schooling her three daughters, now all in their 20s. (Two are college graduates and the third is a senior at Cal State Northridge.)
“When we first started home schooling, people would kind of look at us blankly,” said Sorooshian, an economics professor at Cypress College in Orange County. “They’d say, ‘What? Can you do that?’ Now, they say, ‘Oh yes, my niece home-schools,’ or ‘my nephew home-schools.’ Everybody knows somebody who does it.”
As home schooling enters the mainstream, it is also becoming more secular, according to the survey.
Every five years, the Department of Education asks respondents to cite the most important reason driving their decision to home-school. In 2007, the one cited by the highest proportion of parents — more than a third — was “a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.” But the share of those parents has shrunk since then, from 36 percent to 21 percent.
Now, the plurality belongs to the 25 percent who say their chief reason for home schooling is a concern about the traditional school environment, specifically as it relates to “safety, drugs and negative peer pressure.”
To be sure, a large share of families still home-school for religious or moral reasons. By the study’s count, nearly two-thirds of the families included “a desire to provide religious instruction” among their three top reasons for home schooling. But even here, that figure is eclipsed by the 91 percent of families who selected “school environment” among their top three reasons.
By the survey’s reckoning, the growth of the home-school movement has been meteoric, doubling since 1999.
Joseph Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee — and a leading expert on home schooling — believes the growth will soon level off.
“Most home-schooled households have a mom who stays at home,” he said. “There are only so many people in the country that can afford to take a breadwinner out of the box.”
Data hard to track
In any case, reliable statistics on home schooling can be difficult to find.
The U.S. Department of Education’s figures must be viewed with a careful eye because the methodology changed from conducting random surveys by land-line telephone — which fewer and fewer people have — to sending them out randomly via mail.
In California, the statistics are even fuzzier. That’s because, technically, there is no such thing as home schooling in California. Here, it is done in several ways. Families that go it alone must establish what amounts to a miniature private school. They can hire a credentialed teacher to tutor their child. Or they can home-school through an independent study or online program sponsored by a public school.
While the California Department of Education keeps a tally of private schools in the state, it omits from the count any private school with fewer than six students — and in so doing neglects to track the number of home-schoolers.
As is required of private-school operators, home-school families that opt to become mini private schools need only fill out an online form every October. This is called a “private school affidavit,” and amounts to a notification to the state that the school exists. The affidavit includes a verbal pledge, agreed to under penalty of perjury, to offer the same general branches of instruction that students get in traditional public schools.
“You can’t be teaching basketball all day, or dance,” Sorooshian said. “To be honest, there is nobody who is authorized to check on that. We don’t report to anybody. We have a lot of freedom to do things the way we want to.”
Though K-12 home schooling is becoming more mainstream, it isn’t being treated as such by all four-year universities.
Some advocates single out the University of California as especially unfriendly to the home-school movement.
“I have people who talk to me about getting into college after high school, and I always have to warn them about UC,” said Wes Beach, a home-school advocate in Santa Cruz County who serves as a kind of guidance counselor for home-schoolers. “There just isn’t a way unless you get really high test scores.”
Beach said he’s worked with only one home-schooled student who went straight to a UC campus (Santa Cruz) as a freshman.
The reason: The UC system has strict guidelines on the coursework that must be completed before students are eligible to apply. Those courses — known in education circles as the “A through G requirements” — in essence need UC’s stamp of approval.
Conversely, home-schoolers often don’t draw a bright line between subject areas, instead favoring an approach that allows the interests of the child to drive instruction.
Julian Sharisi, who grew up in Long Beach but is now a student at the private Sarah Lawrence College in New York, remembers a typical school day during his high school years. He would wake up between 9 and 11 a.m., eat breakfast and then read whatever interested him. Class for that day might include a private piano or cello lesson, a dance or acting class, or a trip to a museum or play.
“I never really liked math or algebra; I didn’t see the point — I wasn’t particularly good at it,” Sharisi said. Then he got into music theory and computer science. “Suddenly, I have a passion for math and physics,” he said.
Beach says the one exception to the UC system’s impenetrability is UC Riverside. About five years ago at that campus, a group of professors whose children were home-schooled lobbied the administration to create a separate set of guidelines for such students. To this day, the campus has a committee of professors — many of them current or former home-school parents — that vets home-school applicants.
Many home-schoolers skirt the point-of-entry challenge by taking two years’ worth of community college credits, thereby rendering their high school transcript moot — and enabling them to transfer into four-year universities as juniors.
That’s what Sorooshian’s daughters did. All three went to Cal State schools. One is working as an adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach.
Sorooshian isn’t really among the wave of more mainstream families. A statistician by trade, she’s a self-described hippie at heart.
Sorooshian subscribes to a form of home schooling called “un-schooling,” which some view to be radical, though she believes the method is widely misunderstood. The idea is to let the child’s interests or real-world applications drive instruction, rather than textbooks and curriculum.
When one of her daughters was 5, for instance, rather than make her fill out worksheets that teach the concept of counting money and making change, Sorooshian might instead have taken her to a bakery, given her a $20 bill to purchase a cookie, and then asked her how much money she should expect to get back.
The Biners, meanwhile, lean toward the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Their concerns had less to do with countering the establishment and more to do with the school environment. In a sense, their trail was blazed by Patty Biner’s brother, who pulled his son out of school long before Patty’s eldest child was of school age. The reason? The boy had been held at knife-point in a middle-school bathroom.
“The principal did nothing,” she said. “The teachers did nothing.”
Patty’s oldest son, Joseph, is 14, and now attends Da Vinci Science charter high school, which has no home-school component.
“He tested very well,” said Biner, a stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree in engineering. (Her husband is an engineer.) “His advisory teacher was shocked to find out he was home schooling his whole life.”